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VCU’s Center for the Study of Tobacco Products receives nearly $20M grant to predict outcomes of tobacco product regulations

The $19.78 million grant will be used to launch a five-year project focused on predicting the out...
The $19.78 million grant will be used to launch a five-year project focused on predicting the outcomes of government regulations of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)

The Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $19.78 million grant through a partnership between the National Institutes of Health and the  FDA Center for Tobacco Products to launch a five-year project focused on predicting the outcomes of government regulations of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

The center, which is part of the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is one of nine Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science across the country that provide research to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to ensure U.S. tobacco regulatory actions and activities are based on sound and relevant scientific evidence.

“Our goal is to be able to give FDA a suite of tools that they can use to predict if a potential tobacco product regulation will achieve its intended consequences, and also if it might have unintended consequences before that regulation goes into effect,” said Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products and a professor in the Department of Psychology.

The grant builds on a five-year $18.3 million grant awarded to the center in 2013 to study tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, and to develop evaluation methods to help inform regulatory policy.

“We’re trying to inform regulations that protect the health of nonsmokers who might be encouraged by marketing to try electronic cigarettes or other tobacco products, and also protect the health of smokers by making sure that if they were to use an electronic cigarette in an attempt to get off tobacco cigarettes, that they're not using something that is also harmful to their health,” Eissenberg said.

Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor of health psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, and Alison Breland, Ph.D., research assistant professor of health psychology and project director for the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)
Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor of health psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, and Alison Breland, Ph.D., research assistant professor of health psychology and project director for the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)

Alison Breland, Ph.D., co-principal investigator on the grant and assistant research professor in the Department of Psychology, said the project is aimed at protecting human health at a time when e-cigarette use — particularly among teenagers — is on the rise.

“This work is exciting and significant because the overall end goal of the research is to protect the public’s health by providing solid data to inform FDA regulation of tobacco products such as e-cigarettes,” she said.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said the landmark grant will allow the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products to continue and expand its important work.

“At Virginia Commonwealth University, we have continually committed ourselves to doing what's difficult and what will advance the public good,” Rao said. “The Center for the Study of Tobacco Products is furthering that mission in myriad ways.”

Montserrat “Montse” Fuentes, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the grant —the third largest NIH award in VCU’s history — demonstrates that the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products is a national model for translating basic science to the practices, policies and regulatory science of managing tobacco products and their impact on society.

“The [center’s] work is not only informing local and national decision makers in the regulation of tobacco products but it has an important international impact as a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Tobacco Testing and Research,” Fuentes said. “This major grant furthers the transformational impact of the research in the College of Humanities and Sciences and puts VCU at the forefront of research aimed at addiction and its management.”

Under the initial 2013 grant, she added, the center provided numerous opportunities to VCU students for engagement in experiential learning while applying their knowledge to significant social problems. That grant, she said, was a catalyst for new interdisciplinary collaborations at VCU focused on tobacco addiction, including a project on the effect of e-cigarettes on craniofacial development.

VIDEO: Predicting the Outcome of Tobacco Product Regulations

No taxpayer money will be used to conduct this research, as it is funded under a 2009 law that gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco, and that requires the tobacco industry to provide money to the FDA to support regulatory action.

As part of the grant, the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products will test potential regulations of tobacco products in a series of lab studies, some focused on engineering and the mechanics of the product, some focused on “abuse liability” — or how likely users are to become dependent on a product — and some focused on the effects of tobacco products on people who use them.

Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology, said the grant allows the center to have an “important and profound influence on public health for our region, the country and across the world.”

“The Center for the Study of Tobacco Products is already a world leader in helping policy makers and the public understand how emerging tobacco products work on the body and what their longer-term impacts are on physical and behavioral health,” he said. “The new project lets them continue and expand on this work.

“In addition, the team at the [center] provides training for graduate and undergraduate students at VCU, which means they help produce the next generation of scientists who will be able to grapple with the next set of complex questions that arise in the field,” he said.